Does Constructivism have limits?


Constructivism isn't the same as "hands-off": Kids still need a nudge

Ethan Guzman

It is natural to think that infants will need guidance in building an adaptive approach to survival seeing how they are born with extraordinarily little skill outside of their reflexes. That being said, the innate curiosity in kids serves as that adaptive function in their cognitive development. Their domain general abilities allow them to navigate their world and build schemas that they will later use to solve problems. The process of acquiring information about their world needs little assistance from their parents and yet will still develop well-rounded.

The form in which knowledge is built in infancy is thought to be constructivist, that is, through interacting with the environment infants progressively learn how to solve problems. First, we have to describe how infants build their intelligence system. Infants experience stimuli and take an active note of their surrounding environment. That mental note is called a schema, a schema is “a mental representation of an object or event” (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, p106). In other words, a schema is a mental copy of an experience that infants use to solve problems they will face in the future. But how infants learn to create and manipulate mental schemas is thought to lie within the mastery of the operative and figurative aspects that make up symbolic representation (Kleinknecht, 2020, p33). The figurative aspect is the active construction of mental schemas within the context of an environment. While the operative aspect is the manipulation and combination of mental schemas to solve a task.

Piaget believed that through the different stages of a child’s life the demand put upon them by their environment facilitates growth. The result is the mastery of symbolic representation in an increasingly sophisticated way. What I mean is, that as children experience more diverse and repeated problems, they learn how to logically manipulate their mental schemas to address that problem.

Piaget outlined different stages that show how infants, throughout their development, can best manipulate their mental schemas. The four stages in his theory are Sensorimotor, Preoperational, Concrete operations and Formal operations. He believed that these stages happen sequentially and cannot be skipped. This is true because the maturation of the brain within a certain stage (Horizontal Declage) results in the lifting of biological constraints. Brain maturation allows for children to manipulate their schemes in a progressively logical way. This is true as the brain develops neurologically, more connections are being made between synapses allowing for a more complete control of operations.  These stages are important because they indicate just how infants and adolescents are best able to interact within their environment to promote neurological development.

Within the Sensorimotor stage, infants use their senses and reflexes to first acquire mental representations about their world. This is the attempt at gaining mastery of the figurative aspect of symbolic representation. This can be illustrated by a baby shaking its rattle, the infant is learning that their actions have a direct outcome, which in this case is a loud noise. In this stage, babies are building schemas of their experiences which they will later use to solve problems. The constraint being lifted deals with motor movement, within the Sensorimotor stage schemas are only built if directly acted upon. This essentially means that to be able to build intellect in this stage, the constraint of movement must be lifted. Luckily during this stage infants are learning how to roll, crawl and ultimately how to walk.

In the Preoperational stage, children are able to actively combine copies of their experiences in their minds. That is, with practice they are able to manipulate their schemas, however Piaget would say in an illogical way. Infants are building the operative aspect of symbolic representation but are not yet mastering it, evident through their illogical use of language. The limit to their operative use of symbolic representation shows when children are asked to take the perspective of others. They have the inability to represent their own schemas in different contexts. However, language use or symbolic representation allows children to gain a new framework of understanding. Children start to build the template for logic, by practicing the syntactical formation of language. Hence, the use of language becomes increasingly logical the more practice children have with speaking. Nonetheless, they still cannot use language to represent the thoughts and feelings of others. This is due to the lack of mastery of operators, they are unable to manipulate their schemas logically.

The following stage is called the Concrete operational stage, in this stage children are able to combine schemas in order to gather facts about the world (Kleinknecht, 2020, p21). This makes sense as around this time children are in school learning general facts about their world. So, it is only natural for their schemas to broaden as their experiences start to encapsulate an accurate picture of their larger environment. In this stage, children start to master the use of operators, being able to use the basic structure of logic. Resulting in the ability to effectively use language or symbolic representation. The caveat however is that children in this stage lack the ability to reason in the hypothetical. Children lack the ability to represent their schemas in a context that they have not experienced it in. Children cannot manipulate their schemas past the physical world, not having the reasoning faculty like that of an adult. (not being able to fully reason like an adult.)

The final stage in Piaget’s theory is called the Formal operational stage. This stage can be best thought of as the completion of the Concrete operational stage. Meaning that the brain matures to a point that allows for children to reason abstractly. Children finally master the operative aspect of symbolic representation. They learn how to represent their schemas in a way they have not experienced it. This allows for children to reason like an adult, which is thinking hypothetically and having the ability to predict outcomes.

While Piaget’s stage theory is attractive in describing how infants are able to progressively problem solve in accordance to their brain development, some find his categories too rigid. As a result many scientists turn to Vygotsky’s interpretation to describe how children learn about their environments. Vygotsky believed that regardless of age the pattern of learning falls into a process called a dialectic. A person has internalized all instructions when all of their schemas can adequately solve problems within their environment. However, if discrepant information is presented through social interaction via language, or an exchange of symbols, they enter into a state of Antithesis or discomfort. This discomfort motivates a person to internalize their experience and adapt their schemas. Vygotsky believed that children attempt to internalize discrepant information by making it pertinent to themselves. To accomplish this, children engage in private speech or repeating instructions until it fits into their schema. Vygotsky believed that children had completed the dialect once the information had been synthesized. That is, children must contort and shape the information in order to effectively internalize what they’ve encoded.

The dialectic Vygotsky proposed children to participate while learning has given rise to parents trying to streamline this process. They lean on Vygotsky’s interpretation of social interactions as the fuel to building knowledge. In turn, this leads adults to scaffold the interactions that take place in a child’s life to maximize their ability to manipulate schema. The logic behind this approach is derived from the zone of proximal development. The zone of proximal development is described as the difference between what the child actually knows and their potential development. This is determined by the discrepancy between the child’s ability to problem solve independently and the ability to problem solve under adult guidance. The key here is that instructions are givento those in the community who are less experienced by those in the community who have more experience. That is, when information is too complex to understand, the infant is forced to ignore the stimuli. However, if the adult who has more experience with the stimuli steps in they will facilitate learning. Furthermore, it is thought that children learn best when they operate at a level between their current ability and their ability when assisted by an adult. The premise here is that adults will help children internalize the interactions that take place in their environment because they have more experience successfully solving the problem. As this is true there is a limit to the validity of these processes. Simply put, by structuring interactions to be friendly and conducive to learning, it takes away the necessary discomfort required in mastery.

Piaget’s stage theory outlined different ways children learn to master their mental schemas throughout development. But throughout all the stages there are two processes that are functional invariants of acquiring information within a human. That is, biological mechanisms that are evident throughout all of a child’s life that makes scaffolding unnecessary. Those invariants are Organization and Adaptation. Organization is that the brain organizes lived experience into schemas that are encoded and integrated between one another for later use. Individuals are intrinsically motivated to organize their experiences into categories that help make an adaptive strategy to solve problems. In other words, environmental input that has not been experienced before produces a feeling of discomfort within an individual. When infants/children are faced with a task they are not able to solve, the discomfort of the disorganized information motivates them to adapt their schemas in order to effectively solve the problem. This is where the second biological invariant comes into play (Adaptation). Adaptation is the way in which people overcome this discomfort. A person can adapt their schemas to a new experience through two processes called assimilation and accommodation.

Assimilation is characterized as incorporating new information into pre-existing schemas, only modifying the schema to fit the new environmental pressure. To illustrate this, if a child has a schema for throwing a ball, and a football is presented to them they will use assimilation to adapt their knowledge. They already know how to throw a ball, but they do not know how to throw a ball that is shaped like a football. They merely need to figure out how to grip the ball with this specific shape and then use the same throwing motion schema. The other method of adaptation is called Accommodation.

Using the Accommodation method, new information presented in the environment cannot be interpreted by current cognitive schemas possessed by that person. Instead a new schema must be created in order to solve the problem they are facing. To illustrate, if a person is faced with a task such as playing a musical instrument and their environment has not been conducive to presenting such stimuli before. A person would need to create a new schema in order to be able to effectively play music. The primary point is, these invariants happen automatically in response to the discomfort felt. These processes make each stage in Piaget’s stage theory adaptive in addressing stimuli in their own way. Resulting in adult-like thinking with little prompting from external sources.

What then can parents do to help this process be more efficient without taking the benefits of solving problems by oneself away? Rather than directly helping children overcome tasks, which could take away the discomfort needed for brain maturation, parents can set up an environment that is catered to the stage their child is in. Instead of forcing children to interact with mathematics at a younger age, you can be more effective by promoting brain development via play. This may sound like an arbitrary suggestion, that play is just a waste of time. However, the contrary is true, play is effective in promoting Horizontal Decalage.

Establishing an environment that encourages symbolic play has been found to stimulate the brain of children. Symbolic play is centered on objects and actions as well as other kids who are participating. Children who engage in symbolic play show higher levels of language development, perspective taking and executive function abilities. This is important as all of the regions in the brain that showed higher activation are involved with working memory. Working memory is the ability to process input from stimuli and adapt that information to pre-existing knowledge in order to make predictions regarding their environment. Working memory capacity is required in order to manipulate mental representations. Working memory is a fleshed out explanation regarding the operative aspect of mental representation. Said another way, symbolic representation and more specifically the operative aspect develops faster when experience dictates its need.

Furthermore, pretend play provides an opportunity for children to practice and perfect their reasoning skills. “Symbolic play has been viewed by many as requiring mental representation and as an indication of children’s general cognitive development” (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, p 85). Exposing children to scenarios where they need to manipulate their schemas helps promote hypothetical reasoning within that child. Symbolic play requires children to represent objects and people differently then what they were presented as. During symbolic play kids simulate events they have seen in their environment, for example, pretending to be a superhero and “Fly” around the room. They are able to think hypothetically, kids are representing themselves in a space (being a superhero) that they have never experienced before. Therefore play is enabling them to manipulate their schemas in a hypothetical scenario. Mastering the operative condition of symbolic representation marks the mastery of symbolic representation as a whole. Introducing play will give rise to opportunities that work in conjunction with biological invariants more effectively. Once this is accomplished it is thought that the size of the adolescents’ brain is more similar to an adult sized brain than to a child sized one.

Although, Piaget’s stage theory incorrectly homogenized the way in which most children think at a specific age. His stage theory today allows us to have a starting point in addressing the origin of epistemology. That “the child is an active, self-motivated agent, playing an important role in his or her own development” (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, p 177). Meaning children are seekers of stimulation and act on their environment to shape their own cognition. In turn, they seek cognitive discomfort and will therefore structure their own learning according to their needs. Children will not learn an aspect of symbolic representation and then stop. They seek to encode information to come up with an effective strategy to solve the problems in their environment. The strategies children use become progressively logical in accordance to the maturation of the child’s brain.

Moreover, the maturation of domain general abilities, such as executive function, helps children create a more comprehensive approach in addressing problems. This is evident as children master symbolic representation once their biological constraints are lifted (or maturation necessary completed). Therefore, parents shouldn’t try to only streamline brain development through crystalized intelligence but rather, they should look to structure environments that encourage exercise in many operations (various flows of information). Children need the chance to encounter problems in their environment that promote brain development . This will progressively give children the ability to master both aspects of symbolic representation. By increasing the amount of times children are able to work on mastery, the sooner they will have a distinguished strategy to solve problems. Ultimately the best option for parents is to promote the necessary brain development that kids need to overcome the constraints biology puts on them.


Bjorklund, D., F. & Causey, K., B. (2018). Children’s Thinking: Cognitive Development and Individual Differences. SAGE Publications, Inc, 6, Ch 2.

Bjorklund, D., F. & Causey, K., B. (2018). Children’s Thinking: Cognitive Development and Individual Differences. SAGE Publications, Inc, 6, Ch 3.

Bjorklund, D., F. & Causey, K., B. (2018). Children’s Thinking: Cognitive Development and Individual Differences. SAGE Publications, Inc, 6, Ch 5.

Kleinknecht, E. (2020). Cog Dev Week 10 Sp 2020 [Unpublished Manuscript]. Department of Psychology, Pacific University, Oregon, United States.

Kleinknecht, E. (2020). Cog Dev Week 11 Sp 2020 [Unpublished Manuscript]. Department of Psychology, Pacific University, Oregon, United States.